Monday, November 10, 2014

REVIEW - Don't Starve.

Don't Starve is a pure survival Roguelike.  Full stop.

Developed by Klei Entertainment, who mastered brawling in two dimensions with Shank 2 and delivered what is perhaps the greatest stealth game of all time with Mark of the Ninja, Don't Starve represents a complete departure from the genres, style and gameplay that the studio built its name on.

To be brief, Don't Starve is supernaturally successful in its ambition.  Beyond the charming, beautiful hand-drawn presentation, thoughtfully-chosen sound design and richly charismatic animations - in terms of design - it achieves precisely what it means to and, if you have the constitution to stick with it, offers hundreds of hours of adventure, exploration, discovery and survival.  It's brilliant.

To be less than brief...

Wilson's journal, day one hundred and forty-two. 

I returned today to my tree farm in the plains to the northwest.  The trees had grown thick and strong - one hundred and sixty firs in a great strip, ten trees across by sixteen long, with lightning rods planted strategically within.  There is little that satisfies like the sight of lightning striking that rod and sparing my carefully planted trees from an inferno. 

A stitch in time saves nine, as they say.  Just so - constructing the pig-men town to the south of my camp has proven equally worthy.  Yesterday, I offered some lasagna consisting entirely of that foul monster flesh to Justin, Constantine and Wiggles, and they declared themselves my truest friends. 

Pig-men are not clever, but what they lack in wits they more than make up in vigour, and the four of us cleared the stand down to stumps in a day and a half.  Alas, one of the trees pulled itself from the ground and demanded satisfaction for our transgressions when our labours neared their conclusion, and all but Wiggles were lost in the ensuing melee. 
Justin's skin remained intact upon his death.  He shall make a handsome helmet.

Once upon a time, gentleman scientist Wilson Percival Higgsbury toils among his failed experimentations in a lonely house on top of a hill.  Frustrated with his lack of success, he sits down to rest in his favorite chair, and hears a strange voice from the radio.

"Say Pal, looks like you're having some trouble!  I have secret knowledge I can share with you, if you think you're ready for it..."

Wilson doesn't ask questions.  He nods, grits his teeth and holds the radio on high as his mind is flooded with secrets of unspoken, eldritch horrors - of the crossroads between forgotten magic and dark science.

As the torrent subsides, his pain fades to understanding and thence into joy.  Working like a man possessed, he binds mice together and hammers out... something.  He slices his palm and permits a drop to fall into his workings.  One great plume of smoke later, he proudly stands before his completed construction.

But... what does it do?  Wilson isn't sure, but the voice returns to egg him on.  "Throw the switch," it calls.

He hesitates.  He thinks about it.  He drops the lever.

The machine crashes to life.  It whizzes and spins and is suddenly less a device than a malevolent evil - what has he done? - but he cannot flee as dark hands erupt from his floorboards, wrap around him, seize him, and pull him down to God Knows Where.

He wakes in a meadow.

What is this place?  Why was he brought here?  Who was that voice on the radio?  This well-dressed character is a prime suspect, who simply points out that Wilson looks a little piqued, and suggests he might want to track down some food before sunset.  Then, the well-dressed man disappears, and Wilson is alone.

The camera pans out to offer a better view, and the game begins.  "Don't starve" is all you're told.

"Uncompromising" is right.

The very nature of the modern Roguelike is to tell the player little, and permit them the pleasure of working things out on their own.  Don't Starve takes this mandate very, very seriously, and offers absolutely nothing in the way of instruction, tooltips or guidance.

As a result, to begin, you will have very little fun with Don't Starve.  You will hate it.

Upon starting up the game, you'll wander the meadow you began in.  Here is a carrot.  You can pick the carrot!  Ah, you can eat the carrot.  Your hunger meter fills a bit.  Here is a berry bush - you can pick the berries!  "Maybe they'll grow back," Wilson hopefully suggests.  There are little bare trees you can strip twigs from, and little tufts of grass you can gather grass from, and you happily wander the meadowlands, picking up flints and twigs and berries.  That night, as the sun sets and your belly is comfortably full of carrots and berries, darkness falls.

The darkness is all-encompassing.  You cannot see yourself.  You cannot see anything - there is nothing but the thickest, blackest black.

"Ow!" Wilson cries with the wail of a Hamon muted trumpet.  "Something bit me!"

Then, with a descending trumpet's whine, Wilson dies. You survived 0 days.

Try again?

The world is built anew.  You wake in a meadow, and realize there is much to be done before night falls.  Dashing to and fro, you sieze piles of carrots and berries, strip every twig in sight, every tuft of grass and snap up every shard of flint. It is then that you understand, with two twigs two tufts of grass, you can construct a torch!  Ah-hah!  Bring it on, nightfall!  At least, now, you can see your mysterious attacker and perhaps flee from it.

That night, when dusk falls, you equip your feeble torch and hold it aloft against the encroaching dark.  Nothing comes for you.  Nothing crosses into the light.

You continue wandering, picking what berries and carrots you can find in the meagre light as the durability of your torch descends from one hundred per cent to fifty per cent and then to zero, and poof.

Total darkness envelops you, and you desperately open your crafting menu to get another torch made.  You begin flinging the thing together but something strikes at you from the dark.  You try again, but that Harmon muted trumpet sounds, and Wilson dies.

You survived 0 days.  Care to try again?   And it's like, what the hell?  What do you want from me, Don't Starve?  I'm trying to play you but you just keep killing me and I don't get why.

Fine, I'll do this.  I can survive one God damned day.

You wake in a meadow.

That day you make three torches, but by the time dusk settles you've realized that you can take two twigs and piece of flint and construct an axe.  That axe can be used to chop down trees, and the logs produced can be used to create a great, roaring campfire!

You survive the night, feeding pine cones into the blaze.  You wander from the meadow into a dead, rocky expanse, full of boulders.  You can craft a pickaxe... cracking apart a boulder produces rocks, but what on earth do you need rocks for?  Or gold?  Are there shops here?

You keep moving.  A great, one-eyed, spindly-legged bird-thing protects its nest, and gives chase as soon as you approach. You flee east, and find yourself in a thick, vast forest.

Your carrot and berry supplies are dwindling - and spoiling, with the passage of time - but occasionally you find seeds on the ground you can eat. That night, your tummy growling by the warmth of your campfire, you hear hissing in the woods, and the tapping of claws.  What could be out there, beyond the safety of the firelight?

A great, man-sized spider, all blackness and hairy limbs, emerges from the darkness and comes for you.  That little Harmon trumpet sounds, your health bar staggers down, but you've still got those torches. You equip one, and you run.

You run and run and run through the night, dropping used-up torches and equipping pre-made ones in mid-dash.  You break through the forest and find yourself in a great grassland as the sun comes up.

Rabbits frolic, here, creeping from their burrows to feed and shrieking back inside as you come near.  Great, furry beasts roam the plains on cloven hoofs, their faces oddly expressive beneath mighty, curving horns.

They are huge and powerful and kind of cute, and just as you step towards one, Wilson collapses to the earth.

He starved to death.  You survived 3 days.

It is at this point (if not earlier) that many players will abandon Don't Starve.  What is this crap?  It's like it doesn't even want me to play it!  It just keeps killing me before I can do anything!

Fuck this game, man.  Fuck it.  What is the point?

First of all, one climbs the mountain because it's there.

It can be done.  It can be mastered.  You know it can, because the game exists and exists to be played.  You are not meant to die here, Spartan.  Every death is a teaching point and every day survived a triumph against the dark will of the creature who trapped you here.

Even as one throws themselves against the wall of inaccessibility Don't Starve is quite-intentionally designed as, dying over and over in turn, they can perceive what exists on the other side.  The world is vast and incomprehensibly deep.   What's the deal with that bird-thing?  Where did the spider come from?  I wonder if those rabbits are as delicious as they look. What does one do with rocks?

If you can see that unexplored country, it's human nature to want to go there.

Don't Starve has secret knowledge to share with you, but unlike poor Wilson, it requires you to earn it, and be a willing and informed participant - you can leave any time you want.  After allowing the game's inaccessibility to thwart my desire to know its secrets on PC and then PS4, I returned to it on Vita and found myself dragged in to its Who Knows Where, from which I was unable to escape. All other games faded to nothingness.

It was my fault, really.  I wanted that knowledge, and when those dark hands came for me, I went willingly.

The camp of someone who knows what they're doing. 

Wilson's journal, day two hundred and twenty. 

The grass farms have proven most valuable and, along with the fireflies and the Pig King's gold, will allow the production of an ample supply of mining helmets.  Having successfully tracked the secretive koalephant, my larders now overflow with meaty stew and beef jerky.  That, in addition to the honey-berry jams, should last for some time. 
The hounds came again last night, but my preparations have ensured they no longer represent any real threat.  I am running low on healing salves, and must again head south to my spider farms in the hopes of harvesting their precious glands.  

My supply of stones is worrisome.  I have two-and-forty and am able to create enough salves to last me this season, the next and likely many more - but having exhausted the rocky fields far to the north-east, I fear I may run out when my need it greatest.  
What if that fearsome deer-clops should find my camp when I am away, and destroy its walls?  Two-and-forty stones are not near enough.
I have heard whispers of a place where rocks fall from above - where they are infinite - but the journey is fraught with the dangers of the unknown.  Here, I am safe.  Here, I have survived for so long, and who-knows-what awaits me in that unexplored darkness.  

I am afraid to stay, but lack the courage to go. 
Day thirty-two.  Wilson battles a fearsome tentacle in the marshlands.

Don't Starve wishes to be "an uncompromising wilderness survival game," and in that it is entirely successful.  That objective purposefully withholds the accessibility of most any other game, because the soul of its experience is, yes, being lost, but then finding.  Of learning, for yourself, how its flora and fauna interact and can be turned to your profit. Of exploring the terrible, lethal unknown and letting that fear burn away in the face of discovery is the entire point.

Our instincts shriek at us to stay back from that spider's nest, but only by stepping forward can we learn, for example, what happens when you step on a spider's nest.

For weeks, I refused to drop myself into a worm hole because who knows what the hell those things do - probably something awful - as nearly everything in the game is a two-sided coin, with death on one face.

On the other side is, invariably, one aspect of your salvation, if you'll earn the knowledge to wield it.

Wilson upon emerging from a worm hole.

The early game is pure, lovely, moment-to-moment survival, where lean nights may have you desperately eating the poisonous flesh of a monster or roasting seeds on an open fire as you balance the needs of your immediate mortality against the desire to assemble long-term solutions.  As you wander its world, threats and opportunities spring up from all sides, demanding consideration.

The hounds are coming.  A beefalo herd lies to the west, a pig-town to the south, and the northern woods are thick with spiders.  Choose.  You are starving.  Your camp is a half-day's journey from here, but the carrots and berries may have grown back in the meadow just to the east.  Or maybe not.  Choose.

There's always a solution to even the most grievous of circumstances, but choose wisely.  Don't Starve does not hesitate to punish ignorance, stupidity or lack of preparedness - but when the day comes that you find yourself surrounds by mini-bosses, vicious hounds, murderous machines and killer bees, each able to tear you apart in seconds, and you're the one who walks away clean?

It's incredibly satisfying.  You overcame this with nothing but the power of your mind.  You began, here in this lost wood, with nothing but a few twigs and a flint you found on the ground - and now you are master of this mysterious land.

Day one hundred and five.  This deerclops came too near, and is too great a threat to my person and my work.
I must dispose of it. 

It is non-linear in the surest sense.  There is no campaign directing you, there are no quests, there is no objective - only your immediate and future survival, and the effectiveness of your strategy.

As in some of the greatest adventures of our time - XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Dark Souls - the true narrative of Don't Starve is entirely your own - the tragedies and the victories.  You write this epic.

Its triumphs are never tired, scripted affairs.  You never press X to not die.  You don't die because you planned it that way.  Because you prepared for the coming winter, because you understand what can happen when it begins to rain and because when you stepped on that spider's nest, you knew exactly what would happen.  In fact, you were counting on it.

When bad bees go good.

Wilson's journal, day forty-four.

It was wise to explore the eastern road, this summer, and wiser still to have packed those delicious stews which so fortify my constitution. The journey took two full days, and I discovered a great field of boulders to be mined, solving my immediate masonry woes - infested though it was with spiders.  Yet better, the north-west boundary of that rocky field led on to a meadow thick with vicious killer bee hives. 

The creature who trapped me here, I am certain, quite intentionally positions such lethal things to keep me out of places he'd rather I not go.  Places I must go.  With the spiders' silk I was able to fashion protective headgear, and I dove in to their swirling midst.  My suspicions were satisfied as, before completing a circuit of this most-dangerous area, I came across a stand of marble pillars, watched over by mechanical guardians and the mighty Rook.  I had, finally, found it. 

My journey was very nearly cut short as the hounds chose this happy moment to descend upon me - but the bees are foe to all and friend to none, and by leading my pursuers into their ranks they not only destroyed the cursed hounds, but nearly all of the clockwork villains as well. What little remained could not withstand my spear and armor. 

Now, overloaded with ore, honey, hounds' teeth and the rare gear-innards of those automata - the ultimate prize - I head for home with a light heart. 

This has been most fortuitous. 

It's designed for an absolutely obscene amount of play time and infinite replay value thanks to its unorthodox development and impressive post-launch support from Klei, which saw the game repeatedly updated after release with more content, more systems and more mechanics.  Prior to release, Klei Entertainment opened the game to beta players in order to receive their feedback on what they were putting together.  Much of what Don't Starve has become is a result of player suggestion and Klei's implementation, and the result is a game with a staggering degree of grit and detail.

Food spoiling over time, for example, was a fan suggestion, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg of Don't Starve's labyrinthian systems.  As darkness falls, you'll notice a little arrow pointing down has appeared over an icon featuring a brain.  This is your sanity meter.

If Wilson does not sleep through the night, if he permits himself to wander in the rain, as he fights the monsters of this mysterious land, he slowly goes mad.

Dark hands emerge from the edge of your campfire's light to creep forward and seize its protective flame.  You begin to see shadow-creatures everywhere.  Rabbits are no longer rabbits, but black, evil things.  When all grip on reality is lost, the shadow-creatures turn tangible, hunt you down and kill you.

But, of course, it is a coin with two sides - and there will come a day when you'll find you want to see things a little differently.  If not, you must discover what can be done to guard and repair your ever-tenuous grasp on reality.  My favorite?  A dashing sense of style.

The walking cane, the dapper vest, the Tam o' Shanter and a clean shave.
Wilson at his most civilized.

Don't Starve received the Reign of Giants downloadable content pack on April 30th, and it doesn't represent a campaign or a story mode or a new adventure - it is a switch you can choose to flip which makes everything far more complex.  It adds more creatures and enemies to use and fight and fear, more items to craft and find.  It adds new biomes to discover and seasons, with the torrential downpours of spring and the chill of fall dovetailing the murderous heat of summer.  It is an infinitely-more-complicated Don't Starve custom-bred for people who desire yet more to discover after having, somehow, mastered the original game's mechanics and its roster of haunted heroes, from a wondrous mechanical man to Willow, who has a sweet lighter and lights fires when nervous.

That is a direct quote from her in-game description.

Each character demands the game be played slightly differently, each procedurally-generated world is never the one you explored, last time.  The artificial intelligence that hums beneath the hood of this game ensures a constant flow of the unexpected and unexplained - I have, in my travels, stumbled across a bipedal walrus in a jaunty hat leading a hunting party against a legion of rampaging penguins.

It's deliciously weird.

Its rules and its systems spiral ever-onward, and there seems no end to the secrets and discoveries that await.  No end to the adventure, no end to the tiny victories and little dramas - no end to the hidden knowledge it has to offer, if you'll only go looking for it.

It's a single-player game you can become absorbed in for hundreds upon hundreds of hours.  Having played Don't Starve for a mere two months - loving it for two months because it is so damned compelling, once its defenses are breached - I know I have merely scratched its surface.  Literally.

Wilson's journal, day two hundred and twenty-six.

Our party arrived at the sinkhole just before dusk.  There's no turning back, now.  If there are stones down there, I mean to find them.

I have made all the preparations I can, and gathered components for one refrigeration unit, two chests, one fire pit and one meat effigy.  The pig-men thought I was mad when I bound together the sterilized flesh of a beefalo with the leavings of my own shorn beard, but didn't they look a fool when I burst forth from that meaty embrace, very much alive, after freezing to death last year?  Yes, quite the fool.

It may be equally foolish to believe I should find salvation at the bottom of this pit - foolish to hope that I'll ever find my way out again - but I must try.  My dear Chester is weighed down by all manner of food, armaments, tools and light sources, and having secured the temporary loyalty of these five strapping pigs, I may yet survive what horrors wait below - if they can be trusted to follow me in to the breach.

Who knows what I may find in that dark unknown?  Another world, perhaps.   


  1. Yeah... I need to get back in there. And that was back when the only other season was winter! and what are these giants you speak of?

    1. The Moose-Goose (spring), the Dragonfly (summer). the Bearger (fall) and the Deerclops (winter - already in Vanilla Don't Starve).

  2. Unfortunately, on pc, all that's behind the reign of giants dlc

    1. Yeah, but it's only five bucks. Again, though, I don't think anyone should dive into RoG without getting a very firm grip on the vanilla game.